Aperam is only firm bidder for Outokumpu Italian plant-sources
* Apollo's bid is non-binding - source
* JP Morgan's One Equity interested in plant again - source
* EU commissioner reassures local authority over sale timing
By Silvia Antonioli
LONDON, July 22 (Reuters) - A consortium led by steelmaker Aperam has made the only binding offer so far for Finnish group Outokumpu's stainless steel plant in Terni, Italy, two sources familiar with the matter said.
This contradicts previous reports of at least two binding offers, and highlights the limited interest so far in one of Europe's biggest and most modern steel plants in an industry currently dogged by poor demand and weak prices.
Outokumpu has agreed to sell the Acciai Speciali Terni steel mill as a condition for securing the approval of European competition authorities for its purchase of Inoxum, the stainless steel arm of rival ThyssenKrupp.
Outokumpu has twice requested a postponing of the deadline to sell the plant because it thought bids were "unsatisfactory".
Four parties expressed interest in acquiring the plant in the spring: U.S. private equity funds Apollo and JP Morgan's One Equity Partners, the consortium led by Luxembourg-based Aperam with Italian steel companies Arvedi and Marcegaglia, and Chinese stainless steelmaker Tsingshan.
"The only binding offer is from Aperam," an European Commission source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"The other offer is from Apollo, but is not binding."
Outokumpu declined to comment, while Aperam said only that it remains interested in the plant. Apollo was not immediately available to comment.
According to a second, industry source, JP Morgan's private equity fund One Equity Partners, which after initial interest failed to place a bid, is once again looking at the plant.
"One Equity Partners seems to be back in the game," the source said. "But the fund did not carry out due diligence last spring so any interest from them would still be at an initial stage."
JP Morgan declined to comment on One Equity's interest.
The Terni plant can produce up to 1.7 million tonnes of steel a year and registered sales of about 2.5 billion euros in the latest financial year. Its production was down by about 20 percent in May and June, generally a peak production period, compared with the previous months, presumably a reflection of lower orders, according to a source at the plant.
FEARING FURTHER DELAYS
The European Commission is now putting pressure on Outokumpu for a quick sale to allay fears that further delay could damage the Terni plant, one of the largest employers in Italy's Umbria region.
Workers at the Terni plant and local authorities have recently expressed concern about the extension of the sale process which could worsen the situation of the plant in one of Italy's unemployment blackspots.
Joaquín Almunia, vice-president of the European Commission responsible for competition, sent a letter last week to the president of the Umbria region to reassure her that the sale will be completed as soon as possible with a financially solid buyer that can secure the competitiveness of the plant.
In the letter Almunia said, regarding a presumed aggressive pricing policy carried out by Outokumpu at the Terni plant, that the commission has not found any decisive evidence regarding a potential infraction of Outokumpu's obligation to preserve the plant's competitiveness and profitability.
The Terni plant employees almost 4,000 people directly and indirectly and accounts for about 20 percent of the gross domestic product of Umbria.
The plant, which produces steel for major carmakers, home appliances and energy production, will eventually will be a competitor of its current owner.
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